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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Copyright extension: make it truly about the artists or give up pretending

When the EU extended copyright on music from 50 to 70 years yesterday, under the guise of protecting creators, why didn't they also legislate to ensure that 100% of revenues collected in years 51-70 went directly to the artist and not to the publisher, record label or studio?

The rationale for extending copyright terms by 20 years is centred around modern life expectancy.  An artist publishing in their twenties is likely to still be alive 50 years later - in their 70's - therefore copyright should last longer.

It's the same argument used when copyright in written works was extended in many countries over the last 13 years.

Well, almost.  Copyright in written works and feature films was extended from life plus 50 years to life plus 70 years.  The argument being that descendants of successful authors and film directors should benefit from their parent's legacy, and these descendants were outliving their parents by far longer.

I kid you not, the arguments bought by lawmakers centred on some arbitrary argument that children of successful creators should benefit from their ancestor's achievements throughout their (typical-length) adult life.

So, here's the googly (American readers, see under curve-ball); if this change really is about protecting the interests of creators, why not legislate at the same time to ensure that labels, studios and publishers are automatically cut-out of deals in the latter years?  Deals which can see the artist taking as little as 10% of the sale price, even after 50 years.

After all, publishers invested in these artists in the knowledge that copyright in recorded music lasted 50 years, slicing-off enough from each record sale over this term to amortise their investment.  Why should they and not the artists take the windfall?

I'll answer the question for you.  It's because copyright extension has come about not because of enthusiasm amongst EU law makers to protect the poor artists, nor because of a perceived injustice or unfairness which this extension corrects.

After all, there are strong arguments that artists who survive through public support should return their works to the public domain.

There are also public interest arguments around style and originality - especially in music, where musicians build on a rich musical heritage, "borrowing" styles - but not "stealing" tunes - from earlier artists.  What portion of any new track is actually the innovative product of the musicians and composers making it, as opposed to the established styles of the era?

The extension has come about because of a well-financed lobbying campaign by groups "representing the interests of" the music industry.  And these groups want a return on their investment in lobbying.

The simple fact is I actually buy the argument presented by pro-copyright lobbying groups such as the BPI, MPA and IFPI.  Copyright is essential for the investment in creativity and publishing required to get most forms of entertainment into the hands and heads of consumers; even with the internet.

But these groups want it both ways.

They want it to be about the investment in publishing - where comparisons with patent laws suggest a 20-year protection period is enough to encourage investment in e.g. pharmaceutical research, where new drugs typically cost more to develop than even the most expensive blockbuster film, yet the recipe enters the public domain for "generics" manufacturers to clone after just 20 years.

But they also want it to be about the creators.

So they wheel-out an argument to suit their audience.  They talk about investment in book publishing, where many authors flop, so the successful books need to pay a return enough to cover the flops.  I accept this.  It makes sense.  Take the rough with the smooth.  Authors benefit from the backing of a good publisher, and most I talk to accept that publishers take on the risk in exchange for a better slice of the profits.

But lobbyists simultaneously talk about authors' rights, and how it's not fair that Cliff Richard will soon no longer be benefiting from his hard work in the 50s.

Ok, I get this too.  Well, kind of.  I don't see a penny from my hard work even 10 years ago, and that includes being sole inventor of a patented invention.

But we've already established that the needs of the author, in a competitive creative economy, are actually satisfied via a publisher.  A fact conveniently forgotten by vested interests when it suits their cause.


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